Ilhan Omar’s Anti-Semitic Tropes Echo the New York Times
Could the intense and outraged reaction to Congresswoman Ilhan Omar’s tweet be the key to reforming The New York Times’ coverage of Israel and Jewish topics?
When Omar tweeted recently suggesting that Jewish campaign contributions had swayed America’s Middle East policy, nearly everyone seemed to agree she had crossed some important line.
The speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi, and six members of the House Democratic leadership issued a “statement on Anti-Semitic comments of Congresswoman Ilhan Omar,” condemning as “deeply offensive” what they called “Congresswoman Omar’s use of anti-Semitic tropes and prejudicial accusations about Israel’s supporters.”
The national director emeritus of the Anti-Defamation League, Abraham Foxman, said, “Rep. Omar’s continued blatant anti-Semitism needs to be vigorously condemned by both political parties. There is a need for consequences for such bigoted expressions by elected officials.”
Omar herself eventually said, “I unequivocally apologize,” though she did proceed in her next sentence to complain about the “problematic” role of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, which she likened to the National Rifle Association and the fossil fuel industry.
Even New York Times columnist Michelle Goldberg, last seen insisting, “Anti-Zionism Isn’t the Same as Anti-Semitism” and defending the movement to boyoctt, divest from, and sanction Israel, acknowledged, “Omar invoked a poisonous anti-Semitic narrative about Jews using their money to manipulate global affairs.” Explained Goldberg, “it’s particularly incumbent on Israel’s legitimate critics to avoid anything that smacks of anti-Jewish bigotry. And the idea of Jews as global puppet masters, using their financial savvy to make the gentiles do their bidding, clearly does.”
Yet the “anti-Semitic trope” for which Omar was widely condemned, the claim that American support for Israel is financially motivated — “it’s all about the Benjamins baby,” as Omar put it in a reference to the $100 bills featuring Benjamin Franklin’s portrait — is a consistent feature of New York Times news and opinion articles. Here are just a few recent examples.
In September 2018, a front-page New York Times news article about Republican donors Sheldon and Miriam Adelson described Dr. Miriam Adelson as “Israeli,” ignoring that she is also an American. The Times article, as I wrote at the time in the Algemeiner, tried to make it seem like the Adelsons were buying Trump’s positions on things such as the Jerusalem embassy and the Iran nuclear deal in a kind of quid pro quo, using phrases like “return on investment” and “deliver major, long-sought policy victories for conservative Jews like the Adelsons.” The Times said, “More than a dozen people who know the Adelsons professionally or personally, some of whom are also friendly with Mr. Trump, said in interviews that the durability of Mr. Adelson’s relationship with the president hinges not on any personal affinity between the two, but on a mutual appreciation for something both men have built their careers on: the transaction.”
In February 2018, a Times op-ed, subsequently corrected, warned that Jewish billionaires were about to drag America into war with Iran. The op-ed claimed, “the analysts claiming close ties between Al Qaeda and Iran come from the Foundation for Defense of Democracy, which vehemently opposes the Iran nuclear deal and unabashedly calls for regime change in Iran, while taking money from hawks like Sheldon Adelson and Paul Singer, who have made clear what their goals are with Iran.”
A front-page New York Times article from December 2017 reported, “In March 2016, Mr. Trump sought to burnish his credentials as a friend of Israel, telling the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the most powerful pro-Israel lobbying group, ‘We will move the American embassy to the eternal capital of the Jewish people, Jerusalem.’ The Adelsons were persuaded and donated $20 million to a political action committee that supported Mr. Trump’s campaign, and another $1.5 million to the committee that organized the Republican convention. Since Mr. Trump took office, Mr. Adelson has communicated with him regularly, talking by phone and visiting the White House, and has used his access to push the relocation of the embassy.”
A cutline on a Times video published along with that article helpfully explained, “When President Trump formally recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, one man who was probably smiling was the Republican mega-donor Sheldon Adelson.”
A front-page Times news article from April 2017 was headlined, “Trump Inaugural Drew Big Dollars From Donors With Vested Interests.” That article began, “The casino magnate and philanthropist Sheldon G. Adelson wants some big things from the Trump administration: banning the online poker sites that compete with his luxury casinos, for example, and moving the United States Embassy in Israel to Jerusalem. And while President Trump was not Mr. Adelson’s first choice during the Republican primary season last year, he has been generous since: The billionaire donated $5 million to the committee organizing Mr. Trump’s inauguration festivities — the largest single contribution given to any president’s inaugural committee.”
The New York Times used to have a brand campaign promoting its help-wanted classified advertising, “I got my job through the New York Times.” In this case, Omar could have legitimately claimed, “I got my anti-Semitic tropes through the New York Times.” Perhaps if the Times news and opinion articles were greeted with the same waves of outrage that Omar’s tweet was, the newspaper would back off.
The different reaction may suggest that Omar is being singled out for severe criticism for some other reason. Or it may just be that the Times has been so bad on these issues for so long that at this point, no one other than perhaps me and my readers even expects the paper not to spread anti-Jewish myths. Perhaps, at this point, the Times has lost so much credibility that no one takes the paper at all seriously when it does spread such anti-Jewish myths. Either way, the Omar episode is an excellent opportunity for the pro-Israel community to consider revisiting its approach to the way the Times covers these issues.
Ira Stoll was managing editor of The Forward and North American editor of The Jerusalem Post. More of his media critique, a regular Algemeiner feature, can be found here.